Sunday, September 28, 2014

Where is the Debate in the Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on……………………."

I use to watch all the Sunday morning political shows - Meet the Press, Face the Nation etc.  I quit tuning in to these television stalwarts when they became nothing more than platforms for the spin doctors of the two major parties.  Where they were once forums for real and lively debate on current issues, they devolved over time to talking heads like John McCain and Donna Brazille parroting pablum bullet points that never really say anything substantive.  Meet the Press, the ratings king and mainstay of all the Sunday morning shows, lost its cachet when Tim Russert passed away, and with his passing any hard, probative questioning was lost with him.  It's hard to really have a debate with someone else when neither you nor they actually say anything, and that's exactly what happened on these shows.  There is the illusion of a debate, but its mostly just saying the other side is wrong as a declarative statement.

Last year I did a blog on the Arts Spin Doctors - and wondered if we (in the arts) weren't also guilty (at times at least) of doing exactly what politicians have now adopted as their default modus operandi - namely, to spin the realities and facts of a situation or issue not just to one's best advantage, but to the point where there is really no substantive debate or discussion at all.

And I wonder now Where IS the Debate in the Arts?

Except for some of my fellow bloggers - who raise questions, and aren't averse or afraid to tackle real issues and debate some of the points by taking a stand - and in a couple of areas such as the research sub-sector - I don't see a lot of honest debate going on in our field - at least not public debate.  Maybe it's happening somewhere, but it isn't highly visible and readily apparent to me.  I wonder if that kind of challenging of assumptions and holding people accountable for their positions is going on out of the public window in our organizations - from funders to researchers to service groups to academia. I wonder if the kind of serious debate that is healthy for arriving at well thought out conclusions on which to base decision making is happening behind closed doors - because I don't see it happening much in our public arenas.  If it is happening in a robust fashion within the walls of organizations, there ought to be some way to share all that. It would, I think, be beneficial to us all.

 I suspect that when issues and responses are on the table across our universe, for the most part there are "discussions", but not really serious debates.  We seem to have long championed civility over heated debate, and the acceptable protocol is now for a refined approach to consideration of that which challenges us.  We don't necessarily take strong positions, we don't necessarily fight for deeply held beliefs, and we don't necessarily hold the feet of those who take contrary positions to the fire as it were. At our conferences, there are "presentations" - mostly of programs and the like that have already been launched and assumedly "vetted" first.  But "vetted" by whom and when - because there is no real debate about much of anything at these convenings.

Even the tools we use in our sessions are designed to minimize disagreement and foster blanket consensus.  We gather our ideas, write them down on easel pads and tape them to the walls, then "discuss" them rationally and logically so as to make nicey nicey with each other.   It's almost as though we have, ironically, (for the arts are arguably about passion) bred all emotion out of consideration of the issues with which we must deal.  We avoid confrontation as unseemly for our level of civilization, yet civilization itself is quite possibly a result of contentious disagreement.  We seem to fairly easily accept things as presented to us, and there are norms governing debate within our field that are almost sacrosanct, and there seems little challenge to that which is assumed to be "givens".

Is that healthy?  Shouldn't there be widespread open debate on all the major issues we face, rather than some kind of de facto ratification of what is put up as fait accompli?   Wouldn't a little actual real disagreement and spirited defense of strongly held beliefs serve us better?  What is wrong with the internal system our infrastructure has allowed, if there is so little public (at least within our own universe) debate and questioning of our decision making, of our strategies and approaches, of our blind acceptance of virtually every response to the important issues on our plate? Has real debate been systemically bred out of our approach to how we do things?  Is it reasonable to assume there is really the universal consensus on everything we do that the lack of real debate suggests?  And if we all do basically agree on everything - what does that say about us?  Why are our conferences nothing more than panel presentations where there is virtually no disagreement or debate on what is being presented?  Where are the hard questions and the healthy skepticism as to what is being presented?  Why aren't  we openly and vigorously challenging each other on a full range of positions taken?  After 15 years in this field, I know that there are lots of people with strong opinions and feelings about things and there is no way all of those people see things the same.

I'm not suggesting we be rude, nor combative and accusatorial, in our interactions with each other; certainly not contentious for its own sake. I am not suggesting we argue just for the sake of argument.  Nor am I suggesting there is no  disagreement or debate in our field. I am suggesting that there is too little questioning and debate that is open and transparent, and that the absence of real disagreement and strong, probative public debate is unhealthy for us.

Houston, we have a problem.  And it just might be possible that the problem is us.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit


  1. Well said! I agree, we are far too easy to repeat the party line. We get the leftovers because we aren't bold in setting a big goal and fighting for it - even if it takes years to achieve.

  2. Barry: I have been trying to debate for several years now and no one was listening. I was shouting into the wind like a Cassandra; no one wanted to hear it. I've been called provocative, depressing, negative or just plain crazy -- by those who refused to see a problem, at first, and then those who went to meetings to compete with each other, so no collaboration, no sharing of information was possible. For a while, I ran out of meetings in despair. The very, very few who met me in the hallway shared their sad stories, but no one had a clue which way to turn. Hence, company after company bit the dust. We made a disastrous turn when we gleefully ran down the road to nonprofit status. We all became institutions, but on ridiculous budget levels and basically with no business training. So, we had to learn how to act like corporations when, primarily, we were just a small bunch of artists with one artistic director, to whom fell all the work. We had companies. What we didn't have was art. Every day, every week, every year, artistic directors and (if we were fortunate enough to have) managing directors worked themselves to death. Creative artists became "robot dodos," as they call them in France. And then -- SURPRISE! -- the system that was supposed to save us bailed on us. So here we are 30 years later, bankrupt of funding, box office, spirit, energy, and art. Those who say no are lying or still fantasizing, unless they are big institutions who are somehow presenting holding on by the fingernails. The bigger problems behind all this are philosophical, political in the general and specific sense, economic, and technological. And, those are the problems to scream about and debate. The current situation in the arts is a trickle-down of all those problems. The only way I see to combat this is to start working out the bigger issues or to go back to being the in-your-face, avant-garde, innovative individual artists that we once were. We are the canaries in the cave, but none of us is screeching. Why? We have been tamed.

  3. Great piece Barry. Thanks. A group of us have been exploring similar themes in the UK. For example